The years after college can be the most challenging period in a lifetime. And this time of transition is “an amazing moment” for churches to be present with young adults, campus minister Thomas A. Brown told participants in the Collegiate Ministries Conference here.

The Collegiate Ministries Conference was one of five events included in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)’s 2012 Evangelism and Church Growth Conference (ECG 2012). Others focused on evangelism, new church development, youth ministry and church transformation.

College graduation is a peak experience. “The students have prepared all their lives for that moment,” said Brown, who is the Presbyterian campus minister at Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C.

“The American dream script is written in their heads. And then it doesn’t happen,” he said. Instead of launching a career in their field of study, buying a home and starting a family, a student today is likely to spend months or even years waiting tables while struggling to afford rent and pay back loans. Many end up moving back in with Mom and Dad.

Lifelong careers are a thing of the past, Brown said. Today’s young adults may work in eight or more fields by the end of their lifetime. If you’re just graduating from college, he said, “you’re probably going to work in a career that has not been invented yet.”

This difficult period, which is becoming known as the “quarter-life crisis,” Brown said, “can be an opportunity for young adults to deepen their spirituality.” But they need mentors, older church members who are willing to reach out to them and build relationships with them.

In his new book, Unscripted: Engaging Life After College, Brown uses a metaphor from the theater world to describe the time of transition after college. 

College graduation or commencement signals for students that “the learning in the formal setting has ended, but the going and doing has begun,” Brown told conference participants. “The students have been following this script. Then they graduate and it’s blank.

“How do we as a church walk with those going through these unscripted times?” he asked. “How can we help them find meaning, learning, grace?”

Just listening to young adults can be a ministry, Brown said. At Appalachian State, he said, volunteers from nearby congregations who are trained in active listening set up “listening posts” on campus twice a week. Some 90 students per semester take advantage of these opportunities to talk about problems with relationships or studies or other things going on in their lives.

Brown invited conference participants to suggest other ways of reaching out to young adults. Among the ideas offered:

• Teach students to “church shop,” so they will know how to find a new congregation when they leave home.

• Go to bars and other places where young adults hang out.

• Congregations can sponsor a food truck to sell items on the street.

• Do community service alongside young adults.

• Go online and join a “meet-up group” to go biking or participate in some other activity.

• Volunteer to lead activities on a college campus.

• Challenge church members who work as college faculty or staff to mentor some of their students.

Relationships with people who are not their peers or parents can be very significant for young adults, Brown said. “God works through relationships, not programs.”

Eva Stimson is editor of “Presbyterians Today” magazine.